Free elephant? Vote:

Via on Jan 8, 2010

free elephant

elephantjournal.com is at the end of its rope. And that’s a good thing.

This is probably the most important post in terms of elephant’s future that I’ve posted over the last six months or so. elephant leaders and readers, please consider sharing this with your friends and asking for them to vote, get us feedback. Tweet, post this to your Wall, let’s really try and find out how the “mindful” national community realllly feels (don’t be nice, be honest!).

By rope, I mean money. I got depressed two days ago. Just the day before, I’d seen an article of mine get featured on the front page of The Huffington Post (only third time I’d ever achieved such) and our site had topped 100,000 unique readers over the last month for the first time since leaving old print magazine format for new greener media shores, one year ago. 100,000 traffic had been a goal of mine for a long time, so I couldn’t understand why I was so down.

Picture 338

Today, I ran into Bill Sutton, a longtime Buddhist friend and local food activist, and I got it: we’d finally made our year-long traffic goal. We were officially a success (if a modest one, we have far, far to grow). We’d been named to nearly 20 top 10 social media lists for green, yoga, Dharma.

And yet…Evol Burritos hadn’t returned our sponsorship request query. Neither has longtime supporter prAna, one of our biggest proudest partners over the past 7.5 years as a magazine, and now talk show and web site. Whole Foods has never advertised. Neither has Izze, or Method, or Chipotle. Patagonia, perhaps my favorite company on the planet, has barely ever expressed interest in elephant or our readers. Gaiam, the green/yoga giant in our Boulder backyard? Nearly zilch.

That said, we’ve grown fast, and steadily both. Our last few issues of elephant magazine had over 120 advertisers in there. Our readers are passionate, active, altruistic, ready to pay a little more for a company’s offering that walks the eco-responsible, mindful talk.

Still, our biggest supporters have always been (with the exception of New Belgium, god bless ‘em) small grassroots companies. Friends who happened to run big green businesses or little yoga studios. And our readers.

Bill Sutton told me he was a supporter of the Sierra Club. That they sent him a tote bag, which he liked. But that most importantly, their appeal to him said “free of corporate or politically-minded sponsors, we have 100% freedom to tell it like it is.” Where do I sign up, Bill said. That’s worth paying for. I laughed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled, artfully, to say what I thought about a less-than-eco product from a business that advertised with elephant.

The Sun’s web site is reader-supported. Others? WSJ has mix of paid and free articles.

Picture 336

So here goes: for every $1,000 in monthly reader support, we could free ourselves of four small ads or one larger one. If we succeed in raising around $9,000 a month, we could pay our ad manager (who would become a reader sponsor coordinator), design, video, talk show/event, and editorial staff. Even more importantly, we’d free ourselves up to focus on more and better and more original editorial content, articles, videos, blog, coverage of events and issues outside of Boulder, Colorado. We could quickly move from 100,000 readers a month to 1000,000, and really begin to speak truth to power, and begin to effect the larger cultural dialogue in a way I only very occasionally now am able to do (as with the occasional Huffington Post articles).

So the question is: would you (even a small percentage of you who love elephant, not just like) pay something to see elephant become truly, fully, madly deeply independent. And, more basically, to survive? ‘Cause advertisers aren’t doing it—and, maybe, we shouldn’t be dependent on them.

Would you pay to free elephantjournal.com?


~
After such a week, a year, a blog…I don’t know about you, but I need a little Pema:

About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive. Questions? info elephantjournal com

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56 Responses to “Free elephant? Vote:”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Waylon Lewis, CoraYoga. CoraYoga said: Will you Pay to keep “free of corporate or politically-minded sponsors, and have 100% freedom to tell it like it is.” http://bit.ly/5pmoVK [...]

  2. PlayfulVajra says:

    I like Elephant. Always have, but I liked it more as a magazine because of the original content. Elephant Journal today seems to consist mostly of links to or comments on content generated on other websites/blogs. I would wager a guess that the articles you've had featured on HuffPo have been substantive content originated here, not elsewhere. You need to become the thing that people link to and pass around, rather than the storehouse for links to other sites. Don't just be a aggregation blog. Be a generator of original content which gets aggregated.

    Just my two cents. Jolly good luck!

  3. sethbrigham says:

    I used to see Pema at the Trident in the early mornings for awhile.

    I was interested for this fact.

    I will listen to Pema shortly.

    And, then will answer whether I feel it's necessary to wear the robe/gown all the time.

  4. We passionately agree. However, since we're free right now, we spend literally 20 of our 40 hours a week selling ads, sponsorships, or trying to. If we had that time we could produce, more, better, and more original–as I mentioned above.

  5. That said, thus far, 42% of our respondents would like to see us stay free. If were free, that's fine, but we'll be advertising-focused, and our content will be about 50% in both quality and quantity (read: aggregation) of what it could be otherwise). If our readers pay something, we could not only produce more original content, but pay our writers something for doing so. Media is broken, in both print and online, right now—it's an exciting time, but few have figured out how to make journalism sustainable. This question-as-blog is an attempt to find a way.

    Various magazines and newspapers online have and are once again looking at charging readers some small amount. Non-profits online, like The Sun, ask for donations on various levels to continue their good work.

  6. Rock_My_So;es says:

    Wow I am in the majority that never happens. I don't mind the adds………

  7. Yah, growing up she was all over Boulder, my ma and she were friends. She's salve to my soul..!

  8. I don't mind the ads, particularly, either. I do mind that we spend half our time chasing ads, sponsors, instead of creating good quality original content, as with the magazine, which is what readers want and want advertisers ultimately are attracted to in the first place.

    We tried classifieds, but they take an incredible amount of time, and aside from you, most folks prefer Craigslist (free, much wider reach).

  9. You did a great job of summarizing your situation.

    Do you have any models you can follow for this, or are you breaking new ground? I always like to identify a specific business model I can strive toward, if possible. It's much more reliable than breaking new ground, if there is one.

    If not, what's your gut feel about what will work, as opposed to what will be popular? They may be the same thing, but they may not be. If they are different, you have to go with what will work and assume you can win hearts and minds later.

    Has anyone been successful with free material coupled with strong voluntary subscriptions and as much advertising as you can attract? I personally don't like sites where some material is free and some is not (although I would certainly subscribe to Elephant, so it wouldn't be an issue here.)

    (continued below)

  10. If I were you I would immediately ask for voluntary subscriptions of $10 per month. (This is not the same as the "Friends" page, which is almost hidden from view and clearly has not worked too well so far.) Forget about offering extra value, just ask people to voluntarily subscribe prominently and easily at the top right of every page–$10 per month suggested, more or less depending on what they can afford.

    Keep in mind I have zero experience in this industry! But my gut feel tells me your best approach might be voluntary subscriptions coupled with as much advertising as you can attract. You portray that as an "either/or" in your survey. I think you need both. And with voluntary subscriptions you don't run the risk of diminishing the traffic statistics that support the advertising.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  11. Right, that should have been an option in the poll, I'll add that in though it'll start at zero votes of course. I've been thinking about very few ads paying more, coupled with lots of doable-sized donations.

    • Andrew_A says:

      Perhaps a model similar to what KGNU does. Get donations from readers who value supporting content. I will say, however, that I do value the ads that you do feature — I would never have heard of, let alone supported via sales, a company such as Sweet Skins without seeing their ad on ele. How about making articles available for free for a week and then in archives for subscribers only after that? I have seen several media sites offer that premium to subscribers. Another idea might be to offer an on-demand print edition to advertisers (to place in their retail space) and subscribers only.

  12. I like the micro-patron method that Buddhist Geeks implemented when they were looking to fundraise. Those that wished to become patrons could to help the cost and it still remained free. I would volunteer 5-10 bucks a month. they gave out graphics to link onto micro-patron blogs as well so it increased traffic and public awareness.

    Just a thought.

    check out http://www.buddhistgeeks.com

    cheers,

    John

  13. Hi, Mike. I'm sure you're saying something very important here, and I was tracking right along through the first four paragraphs. But, I have to confess, you completely lost me with that last paragraph. I read it carefully several times and can't figure out what you're trying to say.

    Could you or someone else please help me understand what you're getting at here?

    (And how come the system let's you write a really long comment when it makes me break mine into separate small comments? Do you have some sort of special papal dispensation, and how do I get it, because I like to write long comments, too!)

    Thanks,

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  14. Hi, Mike. I'm sure you're saying something very important here, and I was tracking right along through the first four paragraphs. But, I have to confess, you completely lost me with that last paragraph. I read it carefully several times and can't figure out what you're trying to say.

    Could you or someone else please help me understand what you're getting at here?

    (And how come the system let's you write a really long comment when it makes me break mine into separate small comments? Do you have some sort of special papal dispensation, and how do I get it, because I like to write long comments, too!)

    Thanks,

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  15. Via Jeff O:

    Sorry to hear things are tough. As you mentioned above, this is both and exciting and difficult time to be in media. So much change going on. Here are my thoughts…

    1) The content has to be free. That's what people expect online, and if they don't get it, they'll just be frustrated with the site. If people need a subscription to read, you will definitely be preaching to only the choir. If you want to reach new audiences, they need to have free access to content.

    2) Quality over quantity. I get what you're saying about not having time for quality content when you sell ads. But personally, I'd rather read one or two great articles per week than 20 filler posts. If one post is really good (like your HuffPost articles), then readers will want to come back next week for the same kind of quality.

    3) Same goes for Twitter. I had to stop following because my stream felt cluttered up. Aim for fewer, more meaningful tweets.

    4) Clean up the design with fewer (but larger) ads. Right now, when I go to the home page, I see many small boxes that are all about equal in weight. So many that they all blend into each other. My eyes have no idea where to start looking. (Can you tell I'm a designer?) By selling fewer ads at a higher rate, the ads won't compete with each other and then each will be worth a lot more. Especially since you'll have more time to write good content and draw more traffic :) — Check out sites like http://www.good.is and http://www.fastcompany.com for site examples.

    5) You could also try something like "premium users" or "Elephant Club". If people donate a certain amount, they could receive some exclusive content (email newsletter?), membership pack, exclusive party invites, gifts, discounts, etc. Maybe only members can post comments?

    Anyway, please take the above as constructive feedback. I think you're an incredibly smart person who has a lot of great things to say. In addition to the main Elephant topics, you have a really strong grasp of media today. The fact that you're welcoming readers into this discussion proves how well you get it!

    Keep working hard at it and Elephant will succeed!

  16. Great thoughts, Jeff O. I agree with everything you wrote except #5 I think it's better to just creatively and convincingly ask for voluntary subscriptions from all readers, without trying to add extra member's-only content, for the following reasons:

    1) We want people to think "help support Elephant", not "am I getting value for this fee".
    2) It takes a huge burden off Waylon and the staff not to have to divert their time to inventing and managing the extra content.
    3) It saves scarce web development dollars to not have to password protect the special content.
    4) It fosters a "We're all in this together" rather than a kind of reader "caste system".
    5) It allows variable contributions based on ability to pay, instead of a fixed amount based on added value.
    6) I honestly think that properly placed, worded and promoted it will generate a lot more revenue.

    I remind everyone that I'm going entirely on my entrepreneurial gut here and that I have absolutely ZERO experience in this business!

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

    • "1) We want people to think "help support Elephant", not "am I getting value for this fee"."

      Yes! I like this route the best. Give what you feel that you get out of this publication rather than a velvet rope that a subscription fee will allow you to pass.

      It is also about transparency in intent (which Elephant does well), you lose some of that tranparency when you insist on subscriptions.

      Cheers,

      John
      http://www.zendirtzendust.com

    • "1) We want people to think "help support Elephant", not "am I getting value for this fee"."

      Yes! I like this route the best. Give what you feel that you get out of this publication rather than a velvet rope that a subscription fee will allow you to pass.

      It is also about transparency in intent (which Elephant does well), you lose some of that tranparency when you insist on subscriptions.

      Cheers,

      John
      http://www.zendirtzendust.com

    • Jeff O. says:

      Agreed. It would have to be clear that it's more of a donation to help keep things running. Anything the donor receives back would be more of a "thank you" to show appreciation and to help keep them donating in the future.

  17. Timmy Mac says:

    Here's a simple suggestion phrased as a mea culpa. I discovered the site through Google Reader, and subscribe to your RSS feed. Because your feed contains entire articles, I very rarely click over to the actual site, and therefore never even see the ads. If you changed your feed to include only the first paragraph of a post so that people like me had to click through to the real site to read the rest, you could make your existing ads more productive.

  18. Thank you so much Merete, for weighing in (Merete was our Managing Editor back in our print days of yore).

    What 'exactly are they supporting'?

    They're supporting the business, the production of content, the stuff, the design, the events…in precisely the same way they're supporting a non-profit's various activities–only tax deductions wouldn't be available.

    I'm open to changing to non-profit, thinking about it last night…but it's always been part of our ethos or DNA to try and help prove, a la B Corporations, that you could be mission-oriented for the greater good and successful or at least sustainable as a business. Thus my friend Dave Rogers urges us to call it subscriptions, and offer benefits, schwag…instead of calling it a donation. Seems like a pretty thin line at this point, admittedly.

  19. Fiora says:

    Agree with PlayfulVajra
    Elephant Journal today seems to consist mostly of links to or comments on content generated on other websites/blogs.

    Not worth paying for any of the content here since there is little or no original stuff here and if anyone is interested in your focus they will run across it on other blogs anyway. Though I did think your statement "If we succeed in raising around $9,000 a month," was pretty original and hysterical though I do wish you the best of luck with that.

  20. Fiora says:

    Agree with PlayfulVajra
    Elephant Journal today seems to consist mostly of links to or comments on content generated on other websites/blogs.

    Not worth paying for any of the content here since there is little or no original stuff here and if anyone is interested in your focus they will run across it on other blogs anyway. Though I did think your statement "If we succeed in raising around $9,000 a month," was pretty original and hysterical though I do wish you the best of luck with that.

    • Wow, Fiora! Can I send folks to you who are in need of uplift? Your cheery spirit brings sunshine into a rather dark situation, thanks for that.

      If we do change to reader-supported, we could move from 25% original content (if you actually read our site, you'll see more and more new contributors from around the country really putting time and love into their articls, videos) to say 75%. And as many new media folks know, serving as a one-stop-read (meaning, referring to other content and linking to like-minded media) is a valuable service. Though, agreed, we do an awful lot of it right now, with some commentary.

      Thanks, Fiora—and on the $9000 a month, that would take only 900 readers at 10/month, that's less than 2% of our 105,000 monthly readers. Nonprofits generally count on 3-5% support.

  21. Fiora says:

    Agree with PlayfulVajra
    Elephant Journal today seems to consist mostly of links to or comments on content generated on other websites/blogs.

    Not worth paying for any of the content here since there is little or no original stuff here and if anyone is interested in your focus they will run across it on other blogs anyway. Though I did think your statement "If we succeed in raising around $9,000 a month," was pretty original and hysterical though I do wish you the best of luck with that.

  22. Oh that one should be easy to do through wordpress.

  23. Jigme says:

    For only pennies a day you can save an Elephant(Journal)!!! How about a web banner bloggers can put on their site that will link to yours to donate to the Elephant cause? I would put one on mine.

  24. Oh, and thumbs up for commenting, appreciate it.

  25. Great idea, Leanna. We have maybe 250 videos from over the years, but about 100 more that are transcribed (from our pre-video years). Still, ideally, it'd be nice to offer everything free to any, but just count on the small percentage of readers (see Fiora's optimism, above), who might give something small to make it all possible, and free of advertiser time and influence.

  26. Jeff O. says:

    Another thing to draw more traffic to the site… Highlight the "Walk the Talk Show" videos!! Front and center on the home page. To me, they're by far the best content on here. Right now they're buried within the site.

  27. [...] “I hope you find this helpful and can share with your readers!  Thanks for the support you give to the company, it’s much appreciated and doesn’t go unnoticed!  Good luck with the elephant—I voted for a small fee for the website to free yourself from advertisers and produce some more cont… [...]

  28. Hope it's not a dumb question, but could you be like PBS with sponsors from LOHAS, Entertainment/Film industries, Philanthropy, and viewers like me?

  29. Well, at least you can see that lots of people passionately care about this!

  30. a.sheridan says:

    I wasn't able to read all the comments, so I don't know whether this has been discussed, but how about doing a "pledge drive" twice a year (or even quarterly)? I usually make a contribution to local radio station, KCRW, when they have their pledge drive. I think if you really hustled a couple times a year, and made it very clear how much money you need to raise for that drive, your readers would come through! Also, you could collaborate with small, green companies (like mine!!!) to offer discounts to people who are supporters of Elephant Journal. I used to have a KCRW "Fringe Benefits" card, which I received for supporting the station, and I really enjoyed all the discounts they offered. It was definitely good incentive to donate money to the station (besides the fact that they are awesome).
    You could have the same, but collaborate with green businesses, local restaurants, etc.
    (Now I need to start thinking of ways to raise money for my own struggling business……)
    I wish you the best!

  31. Tracy says:

    Waylon – I credit you and Elephant with bringing me to my Buddhist practice (as it is…). I will support you in whatever poor way I can ($10 a month?). Good Luck with your decision and know there are lots of us out here who support you. Thank you for what you have done so far and I look forward to the future…Tracy

    • Wow, Tracy, an honor to have any role in your life, you oughta write something anytime for us, would be an honor back!

      We're thinking of offering $5/month payable in one annual chunk of $60, or $10/month payable annually, and then offering $40-100 in truly eco goodies to every single subscriber, as well as your name on elephantjournal.com as like a plaque, and that name can be a link, which typically costs $50 – 100 or whatever anyways.

      If even some of you care to give, we should be okay—and our time will be freed to focus on improving our editorial, videos, with more original and more quality offerings that will enable us to fulfill our mission: to be of benefit, in a fun yet fundamentally serious manner.

  32. BTW, we just hit 110,000 uniques this month, and are first in national voting for #green twitter Shorty Award. Moving to reader-supported model this week, looks like, final meetings tomorrow. We've been more or less out of business for last week, out of funds, down to one PT staffer who hasn't been paid lately.

  33. Thanks, Erin! We've tried many times to offer this, in fact it's on offer now under 'friends.' Problem: with almost no staff, it's just not worth our severely limited wo/man hours. Most of this sort of listing business has been sucked up by Craigslist, and franchises like ReDirect Guide, or the others you mention which are far larger businesses. Thanks, though, for the input!

  34. Update, NYTimes.com moving to paid model, similar to one of options in the poll. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/21/business/media/

  35. No problem, Vince! From my point of view multiple sources of support is the best possible model for any publication. When revenue streams dry up it is best to have several to rely on.

    I hope that the Buddhist Geek model proves to be a success and a template for others to follow (and approve upon)!

    Even looking at BuddhaChannel.tv for another possible model…

    Cheers,

    John

  36. JayGaddis says:

    I agree with this guy. The timing is close to use your nimble ass and innovate, grass roots style. Big biz like prana and patagonia are also struggling. Stop looking to them. It's time for the NEW

  37. I don't mind ads, either, but I do mind advertisers' influence, and spending half our time soliciting ad support instead of focusing on independent-minded quality original editorial. That said, we're not even getting ads, anymore, unless we took ad share buys like many blogs do, in which case we wouldn't have choice about which advertisers (like, say, Pepsi, a recent offer) would appear on our site.

  38. Thanks, dnono! This blog itself caused consternation with two of our advertisers (that I know of, could be more). They're very, very sensitive, and understandably so. For years I've coated any criticism in our reviews with so much chocolate niceness that the criticism is rendered ineffectual—when we say hey, Nau and Patagonia etc etc, why make your otherwise wonderful ecofashion halfway across the world in factories where folks don't get paid much, we cushion such questions with niceness and nothing changes. Being truly, fully, madly deeply independent will enable our criticism to be un-coated, yet still fair and reasonable and open.

  39. Thanks for the clarification, Mike. That's very helpful. I'm sure you're right about the choices. Now it's just a simple matter of coming up with the right blockbuster new idea. (Yuck-yuck)

    Now, what about my last question? Do you have some special setting on Intense Debate that allows you to send long comments? It always makes me break them up as soon as they get to be more than 3-4 paragraphs.

    (I will always see your comments, no matter how late, because I alway subscribe to "all new comments".)

    Thanks for responding.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

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